LETTERS FROM KARGIL
Documents recovered from the bodies of enemy soldiers killed at Kargil tell the story of a Pakistani military misadventure and the failure of Indian intelligence two decades ago
Classified papers recovered from soldiers’ bodies tell the tale of an enemy hidden in plain sight
The letter, dated May 15, 1999, bore the crest of two crossed swords under a burning sun. Draped around the swords was a sash with words from a couplet by Persian poet Saadi Shirazi: Pir sho biyamooz (grow old learning).
‘My dear Saeed Ahmed,’ Major General Javaid Afzal Khan, commandant of the Pakistan Army’s Command and Staff College in Quetta whose insignia this was, wrote to the young Major from the 60 Baloch Regiment in that letter. ‘I felicitate you on your selection for the 2000 Staff Course, which is a reflection of your dedication to service and higher standing in the army. We are looking forward to welcoming you and hope that your stay will both be professionally rewarding and socially enjoyable.’ Nagra had been part of the 12th battalion of the Northern Light Infantry (12 NLI), one of the five battalions the Pakistan army sent nearly 10 kilometres deep into Indian territory in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir.
The letter—sent to Nagra’s regiment in Kharian in Punjab province—was among the wealth of documentary evidence the Indian Army recovered when the fighting stopped on July 26, 1999. Nagra was among those who had managed to escape. He went on to rise in service and is currently Inspector General of the Frontier Corps in the South Balochistan region. But his comrades then were not as lucky.
When they went to reclaim the heights, soldiers of the Indian Army found bodies of over 200 Pakistani soldiers lodged in bunkers or contorted in shallow trenches, hit probably by artillery fire from Indian howitzers. As they went through the pockets and rucksacks of the dead fighters, the men of the Indian Army recovered documents that helped them paint a profile of the unseen enemy who had sat hidden in stone sangars overlooking National Highway 1A, that connects Kashmir valley to Jammu and the rest of India.
All these years, this evidence had been sitting locked in the steel cabinets of Government of India offices, many in the ‘Not to go out’ or NGO section. These documents are part of the classified section of the Kargil Review Committee or KRC that extracted lessons for India’s national security from the war.
India today was able to access copies of some of these papers the army gathered 20 years ago. There were Pakistan Army pay-books, photographs of wives and children, unposted letters to families, personal wallets, mess bills, handing over and taking over of mess property, secret lists of code words to be used in communications, passwords, inch maps, task tables of mortar and artillery units, money order forms and personal diaries. They revealed a people who, in the words of an Indian Army officer from a covert unit which scaled the heights, “just like us”. Many of these letters, reproduced here for the first time, offer a fascinating insight into the life of a doomed garrison in what the Pakistan Army code-named Operation Koh-ePaima (Call of the Mountains) or Op KP.
In an undated letter found on the body of Naik Ghulam Abbas of the 8 NLI, his relative Hafiz Abdul Qadir Aadil, a school teacher in Dudhniyal town in the Neelam Valley of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, reflected great concern over the fate of his soldier relative who had gone missing for several months. The wish duaein khair (prayers for well being) was used seven times in the 400-word letter. His family had received no letters from Abbas since January 1999. “We got five of your letters together…all of them had been written before January”. Aadil caught on to a stray reference from one of them where Abbas mentioned “This year, I am at the highest point”, possibly a reference to his being atop the 4,660-metre-high Tiger Hill in Kargil. The list of Pakistan’s Kargil war dead mentions Abbas’s death in ‘enemy action’ in the Hamzigund sub-sector of PoK’s Gilgit district. But the date of his death—July 3—suggests he died in the ferocious battle for Tiger Hill, which concluded with a recapture of the peak by the Indian Army. His retreating comrades most likely left behind Abbas’s body.
The ‘Mujahideen’ hoax
It all began on May 3, when two shepherds at Kargil reported the presence of intruders and the Indian Army sent foot patrols to investigate. This was a year after both India and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons, and just three months after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had embarked on his historic bus journey to Lahore to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif. No two nucleararmed states had ever gone to war since the first atomic
bomb had been tested and used in 1945. It was possibly something the bright and ambitious Pakistan Army chief General Pervez Musharraf factored in as he launched Op KP soon after taking over in October 1998. Musharraf, a Special Services Group (SSG) commando, had ‘literally wept’ when he heard of the Pakistan Army’s humiliating surrender at Dhaka on December 16, 1971. He brought out, dusted and activated a plan that had been languishing in Pakistan’s General Headquarters for several years and which Musharraf knew of because he had once been Director General Military Operations (DGMO).
Op KP’s opening gambit called for the Pakistan army capturing the so-called winter-vacated posts the Indian army held along the Line of Control (LoC). The LoC—the point where the two armies were when ceasefire was declared on December 17, 1971—is an irregular 740-km stretch running from south to north. North of Gurez, it bends sharply to the right towards Ladakh. NH1A follows the LoC, linking Srinagar with Leh, the capital of Ladakh district, a desolate, uninhabited desert wasteland of serrated, knife-edge ridges piercing clear blue skies. The altitudes along the LoC are between 12,000 and 18,000 feet. Heavy snowfall along the LoC—that leads to pile-ups 10-40 feet deep—made it difficult for the Indian Army to overwinter their posts. They would vacate these posts in October and return with the spring thaw in May. Op KP was a plan to occupy those posts using the NLI, a paramilitary force officered by the Pakistan Army and whose men were primarily recruited from the Northern Areas (now renamed Gilgit-Baltistan). Not only did the NLI battalions have all the capabilities of a regular infantry battalion, but they were also trained in commando operations and snow warfare, regularly sending volunteers to the elite SSG. It was their role as tenacious defenders the Pakistan Army drew on.
As the KRC recounts, the deception lay in projecting NLI intruders as mujahideen. They ‘dressed’ like mujahideen, in salwar-kameez. Leaders of military organisations and others in Pakistan issued statements praising the ‘successes’ of ‘Kashmiri freedom-fighters’. “In the initial weeks of May, we thought we were fighting mujahideen,” admits Lieutenant General Chandra Shekhar, then vice chief of army staff. “The radio traffic we intercepted was in Pashto, Balti and other local languages.”
The Indian Army was clearly conditioned by the experience of the decade-long insurgency in Kashmir where the Pakistani deep state deployed the skills, expertise and ordnance it had in running the Afghan war between 1980 and 1988. Nor did our army know of the composition of the intruding force. At a press briefing on May 19, 1999, Lt General V.S. Budhwar, GOC, 15 Corps, said that “although the intruders are well-armed and appear to be on almost suicidal mission”, he still had no proof that they
were Taliban and that there were regulars among them.
By early June, it had become clear that this was a broad incursion along a shallow front. On June 6, the army launched its major offensive in Kargil and recaptured two key positions in Batalik even as the realisation of a colossal intelligence failure began to hit home. “They were sitting all across the watershed…,” says one Kargil veteran recounting in disbelief. “How did we not notice an entire Pakistani brigade strung across the watershed?”
On June 11, the then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, released two sat-phone conversations between Musharraf and his deputy, Lt Gen. Mohammed Aziz, in Rawalpindi. In these conversations on May 26 and May 29 that Indian intelligence agencies intercepted, Musharraf is heard suggesting that the endgame was to alter the LoC.
However, the ferocious Indian counter-assault, which gathered steam in June, took Musharraf and his generals by surprise. Two divisions of over 30,000 soldiers were thrown in to reclaim the heights. IAF fighter jets dropped laser-guided bombs on hill tops, Indian artillery guns on the valley floors fired tens of thousands of rounds, smashing open the stone sangars the ‘mujahideen’ had erected, and infantry units climbed up near-vertical cliff faces to engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat.
The biggest myth that was busted early on in the battle was that the army was facing Kashmiri militants. Something about the dogged resistance our soldiers faced as they made the gruelling climbs up the heights told them otherwise. Mujahideen did not fight pitched defence battles. They did not launch counter-attacks. They did not lay mines. And they certainly did not use artillery, surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns and helicopters.
“The Pakistan Army’s mujahideen façade succeeded till mid-June 1999 because there were no intelligence reports on the army’s involvement before the war and all intelligence agencies continued to back their earlier reports focusing on mujahideen terrorist camps and concentrations in PoK. The Pakistani electronic deception plan for conveying this disinformation was effective,” says then army chief, Gen. V.P. Malik.
“Our intelligence agencies, even forward troops, swallowed it hook, line and sinker. My arguments that mujahideen do not hold ground or have artillery and helicopter support, could not convince the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). This was perhaps one of the factors why the CCS did not officially declare the Kargil conflict a ‘war’ and denied us permission to cross the LoC,” he says. It was after the capture of Tololing (on June 13) that proof of the Pakistan Army’s involvement poured in. It was not only regular army weapons and equipment but soldiers’ pay books, movement orders and signal code books.
The army recovered several personal diaries maintained by Pakistani officers. Among them was one by Lt Mohammad Maaz Ullah Khan Sumbal of 5 NLI. The pocket diary was a complimentary copy issued by Mari Gas—an energy company owned by the military veteran-run Fauji Foundation. The lieutenant, a resident of the defence housing society in Lahore Cantonment, recorded his deployment in Kargil sometime in January 31, the date the diary was sent to him along with a pack of letters and Eid cards from home. The heli-mission was a flight of two ‘Lama’ light helicopters and one Mi-17 medium-lift helicopter. Sumbal maintained the diary until mid-June when he fractured his left arm during a shelling of his post by Indian artillery. He was evacuated to Pakistan’s Punjab province.
In the diary he left behind, the young officer recounts his trek up into Kargil, bathing at minus 22 degrees at 19,000 feet—‘terrible experience’—celebrating his 27th birthday at Hamzigund. On June 15, Sumbal met a fellow NLI officer who had captured IAF pilot Flt Lt Nachiketa, whose MiG-27 crashed following an engine flame-out in Batalik. On June 30, the 18th day of his deployment in the sector, Sumbal recounted the fury of Indian artillery fire—shell splinters ripped the tent he was in.
Op KP was supposed to have been a stealthy takeover of the heights, but it left behind an enormous paper trail. An enormous amount were mundane documents familiar to both armies with a common colonial origin. When examined carefully, they suggest clues that had been missed.
Take, for instance, the Handing / Taking Over papers of Officers Mess Property captured from the Batalik sector—where 5NLI was in combat. The battalion vacated its base on the Pakistan side of the LoC and then moved forward into Indian territory at Batalik. Indian intelligence completely failed to detect this move.
A handful of other documents recovered suggest the detailed planning for operational secrecy for Op KP. A secret list of code words used by the Pakistan Army for the month of May 1999 was also recovered by Indian troops from the Kaksar area of Kargil. They included numbers for what to call ‘enemy positions’. Kargil, for instance, was 713; Mashkoh 812 and Zojila 101.
An Inter Office Note (ION), sent out from the 80 Infantry Brigade on May 31, laid down the protocol for communication security. The NLI units were to use only field telephones and not high frequency radio sets. Military analysts point out how the use of radio sets is eschewed by defensive and dug-in formations since they tend to give away their positions. In the event landline connections snapped, the ION signed by Captain Ali Ul Hassnain advises units to contact their battalion headquarters on PK-786 high-frequency radio wireless sets.
And, finally, among the recoveries were copies of a
Pakistani map with the LoC printed on it as per the mutually ratified mosaics in New Delhi on August 29, 1972. The LoC was reproduced on two sets of maps prepared by each side, each set consisting of 27 map sheets formed into 19 mosaics. It gave the lie to initial claims by the Pakistan Army that they were operating on their side of the LoC. And when, by July 5, Nawaz Sharif announced his army’s withdrawal from the Kargil heights after his meeting with US president Bill Clinton, the Pakistan Army refused to accept the bodies of its NLI soldiers. They lay abandoned in shallow trenches, still clothed in military issue striped khaki sweaters. It was left to the Indian Army to perform their last rites as per Islamic custom—bathing and shrouding the body in white cloth and reading out the Salat al-Janazah or the final prayer for the deceased, and burying them with their heads facing Mecca. The Pakistan Army made an exception for only five bodies, including that of Captain Karnal Sher of the 12 NLI, killed in action in Kargil’s Drass region and posthumously awarded the Nishan-e-Haider, Pakistan’s highest military award.
What the papers said
On July 24, two days before Vijay Divas, the government set up the Kargil Review Committee chaired by veteran strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam and including Lt General K.K. Hazari, B.G. Verghese and Satish Chandra, Secretary, National Security Council Secretariat (see interview). The hundreds of interviews they conducted with the key personnel in the decision-making chain were reproduced in their report to the government in December 1999. With Pakistan in denial, among the critical pieces of evidence they relied on to reconstruct events as they occurred on the enemy side were the documents recovered by the Indian Army. To the committee members, they offered a fascinating first-hand account of a Pakistani venture doomed to fail from the start. One, which the young Pakistani officers and soldiers deployed in the
theatre had no inkling about.
The intrusion involved the use of a relatively limited number of men (1,700 or so) across a restricted front, of much less than 100 km to a depth of only 5-9 km. It was not enough to hold territory. Nor would the infrastructure available on the Pakistani side of the LoC and the limitations imposed by terrain and weather allow for large-size operations to go through the unheld gaps.
Among the critical accounts is the one emerging from the diary of Captain Hussain Ahmad of the 12 NLI in the Mashkoh sector. The the 12 NLI crossed the LoC in February 1999, losing 11 men and a sepoy in two avalanches that struck these camps on Feburary 25 and March 25. There is reference to “terrible thirst”, living in igloos (snow tents) and to at least eight Indian air reconnaissance missions along the Mashkoh Valley which failed to detect them. The diary is punctuated with entries about blizzards and prayers for salvation. A noting on April 12 reads: “The weather cruellest, harshest and the most nasty. Disappointed to the lowest ebb of hope and courage. No mercy from Allah Almighty received despite five days’ rigorous treatment. Prayers. Cry in the desert.” The weather improved three days later when an Indian reconnaissance helicopter again appeared overhead.
And then comes the clincher. The architect of Op KP, Gen Musharraf himself, visits the sector on March 28. Describing the gambit as “a reply to (India’s) Siachen invasion of 1984”, he hands out Rs 8,000 for sweets to be distributed amongst the 12 NLI mujahids.
It was only in 2006, while releasing his memoir, In the Line of Fire, that Musharraf publicly acknowledged the role of his army and claimed victory at Kargil. In an exclusive interview in July 2004, Nawaz Sharif told india today that “our soldiers killed in Kargil were more than the combined casualties of the 1965 and 1971 wars. There is no official statement, some say 2,700, and others say it was more”. Sharif, then in exile in Saudi Arabia, promised to hold an inquiry if he returned to power. He didn’t. But, in November 2010, two years after Musharraf fled to London in self-imposed exile, the Pakistan Army uploaded a list of 453 officers and men who had died in Op KP. This would be 11 years after the misadventure ended in international ignominy and military defeat.
This July 26, India observes Vijay Divas, the 20th anniversary of its last war with Pakistan where it lost 474 officers and men. There is a familiar thread running through an undeclared war that has simmered on since 1947—from Jammu and Kashmir, through the three wars, to Kargil, Mumbai 26/11, Pathankot and Uri 2016 and Pulwama now. The Standard Operating Procedure or SOP is like the one a Nixon-era political consultant prescribed for politicians and captured spooks alike: “Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counter-accusations.”
This SOP explains the nearly two-month cordon by the Pakistan Army around a Jaish-e-Mohammad terror training camp IAF fighter jets hit on February 26 this year. The camp, at Juba Top in Balakot, was thrown open to a carefully conducted tour by the Pakistan Army on April 10. Journalists and foreign military attaches were taken around a madrassa with young children in it, but not to other parts of the camp where JeM cadre and their trainers were housed. (Indian intelligence knew of the madrassa and IAF jets were instructed to avoid bombing it). ‘Deny everything’ also explains the silence around the fate of the ‘second IAF pilot’ who the Pakistan army spokesperson and later Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed had been captured on February 27. (India believes he came from a downed PAF F-16.) It took Pakistan 11 years to own up to their Kargil war dead. One wonders how long it will take to admit to the events at Balakot. Unlike Saadi’s couplet, it seems the Pakistan Army will grow old without learning anything.